At the start of The Last Waltz — the Band’s brilliant concert film — there’s a disclaimer:
“This film should be played loud!”
Such is our relationship with rock music. Much of its power is derived through sheer volume. What’s the first thing we want to do when we hear anything we love on the radio? Turn it up, of course. It’s a natural inclination, to want to hear better the sounds we love. But is volume an essential element of rock music? Can it be powerful without being loud, or rather, without relying on decibels as the main conduit of that power?
Painful, Yo La Tengo’s first record for Matador Records, came out in 1993 (and was recently reissued on vinyl) and argued that, well, volume isn’t the main element to rock music. That it need not go to eleven to have force.
Which isn’t to say that Yo La Tengo isn’t loud. Anyone who has seen them live can attest to their ability to make your ears ring for days. And, hell, Painful can be plenty noisy. “From a Motel 6” is a teeth-grinding swell of guitars. “Double Dare” is a heady weave of loose, rattling hooks. The ironically titled “Sudden Organ” — since the organ on Painful isn’t sudden at all, but perpetual, even miasmic — buzzes outward on all sides.
But it’s that outward feel, that reach, that distinguishes Painful (and most subsequent Yo La Tengo records) from its contemporaries. Previous records were leaner, and often more insistent in their noise, but two changes shape Painful into something different. It’s the first album with bassist James McNew playing on every song, and it marks the band’s first collaboration with producer Roger Moutenot, who has produced all the band’s records since. McNew, who adds a spacey, subterranean foundation to these songs, and Moutenot’s ability to repurpose the band’s talents in a new direction, shifts our understanding of rock music in some fascinating ways.
Instead of trading in volume, Painful posits that rock music can be about taking up space. It doesn’t have to scream at us, but it sure can crowd us, taking up all the air in the room so that we have to pay attention. All the vocals here, even at their most forceful, feel faint, even whispered. Ira Kaplan’s voice is emotive, constantly strained, but rarely shouting. Georgia Hubley has a siren’s seduction to her voice, drawing you nearer with her quiet insistence. In a similar way, the music sometimes draws us in with quiet, by filling space rather than upping the noise. Take “Nowhere Near,” which can’t help but bring to mind the eerie theme music from Twin Peaks. Hubley’s voice is dreamy, blurred at the edges, shaped by the spare guitar riffs than ride over McNew’s steady bass and a cloud of keys. The songs grows steadily, distorted guitars fill up all that airy space. And yes, it is loud. But if you turn up Painful in these moments, you don’t necessarily get more out of the sound. “Nowhere Near” is impressive not because of its quiet-to-loud construction — we’ve heard that — but because it feels like it has physical size. Like it’s imposing on your personal space as it goes. It is confessional, and then it is intrusive in some strangely beautiful way.
You could see the two versions of “Big Day Coming” here as an easy example of Painful‘s strange physical presence as a rock record. The opening version, all pulsing organ and light feedback, plays like a daydreamed memory of a song. The version that comes later in the record is more immediate in its power. Hubley’s drums charge forward, guitars seeth, the bass rumbles. It sounds like a recognizable rock song. It’s brash and exciting. Yet it never feels as deep as the other version, doesn’t quite resonate with the same feel. It’s matches the lyrics betters (“Let’s wake up the neighbors, let’s turn up our amps”) but it doesn’t haunt you the way that opener does. The first “Big Day Coming” sets up the rules for the record, lets you know it’s going to push at the room’s wall before it tests the speaker’s wires. The song also turned out to mark a whole new sound for the band as a whole, setting them down the path that would include classic albums like 1995’s Electr-o-pura and 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One.
But it all started with Painful. Notice how the second “Big Day Coming” is the penultimate tune on the record, not the final word. That kind of bookending would be too easy. Instead, we conclude on the epic “I Heard You Looking,” a barely there song that grows into a buzzing and charged final burst of energy. The title uses one sense to notice another, hearing gives away seeing. So it is with this record. You hear these brilliant rock songs, but you don’t hear their force. You feel it. You feel the seams of these songs stretched taut, bursting in places, sounds spilling over into space they shouldn’t be able to take up. That is what’s so impressive. You can listen to this as loud as you want — and it will sound good loud — but even if you wake up the neighbors with Painful, it’s not likely they’ll be covering their ears in defense. Instead, they may be backing away from the wall, from these song’s invading their home.
So, can we call it rock music if it’s sung in a whisper? Well, if it’s Yo La Tengo, and it’s Painful, then hell yes we can.
Quarantining the Past is a new on-going column at Prefix Magazine where we’ll discuss albums from the ’90s. Records that were important to the decade, albums we overlooked, albums by important bands that don’t get talked about enough, albums that get better with age and those that time has been unkind to — we’ll talk about them all, with a new album featured every week. Got an album from the ’90s you want highlighted? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to share your thoughts on the featured album each week.